One of the things I enjoy about visiting more metropolitan areas than my own is seeing the food fads that show up in particular cities. Like the sudden resurgence in fruit juice in 2013, or 2015’s bone broth craze, or the still-with-us circa 2005 cupcake craze (we’re past Peak Cupcake, but there are still a lot more cupcake places about). In Seattle, one of the 2016 trends was poke: the Hawaiian dish made from cubed, raw, marinated fish served over a bed of rice with a selection of toppings like garlic, the infamous “krab stick”, edamame, ginger, and various seaweed products. It’s actually a dish I rather enjoy (or, more usually, the closely related Japanese-inspired donburi, which is more common out my way). But it was definitely one of the current food trends in Seattle, since during our march we saw no fewer than a dozen places advertising their poke. And there were few better examples of the craze than the 45th Stop N Shop Deli.
Okay, it’s now time for Offbeat Eats to get back Stateside. Last August (yes, yes, I’m behind again), we joined friends of ours from college and TivoCommunity in our annual tradition: a Death March. That’s a 20+ mile hike through an urban area exploring all the food options, and this year we decided to give Seattle a try. There were a few reasons for this: (a) it’s been a perennial top finisher in the polls when we’ve been selecting cities to visit, and (b) my college roommate Steve had just moved there from San Francisco back in 2015. So we rounded up the usual cast of Death Marchers plus a few locals from the Pacific Northwest, and set out on our hike (basically a giant loop starting by Volunteer Park and looping through University of Washington, over to Phinney Ridge, and through downtown, ending up down near Georgetown). One of our first stops was a find by Steve: Mighty O Donuts.
I rather like a good trip to Portland, Maine, especially since Portland has managed to cultivate quite a beer and food scene, with everything from a good Belgian beer bar, to a good regional pizza chain, to potato donuts, to even Asian fare like dumplings. So when we were looking for a nice variation on our usual joints, we decided to try Mi Sen Noodle Bar, a relative newcomer on the Portland scene (opened in 2013).
Manchester, NH is a funky little town. New Hampshire’s Queen City, it has a lot of character in some of its neighborhoods. Downtown is located in what used to be the mill district (indeed, most of the Millyard is still there, being converted into various offices, industrial lofts, and the like), and there are even a few ethnic neighborhoods. One of these is the West Side, where two of the larger neighborhoods (Notre Dame and Rimmon Heights) are actually Quebecois in heritage. The area had some tough years, with “urban renewal” between the 1960s and 1980s actually razing two decent neighborhoods and turning them into dismal strip malls, but the area has generally rebounded, diversified a bit, and, well, even gentrified a bit. But in addition to the notable large French Catholic Churches, the neighborhood still has a lot of Quebecois heritage, especially in the food scene. There’s probably no better place for this than Chez Vachon.
Lest one think from the previous reviews that the Tysons Corner area is entirely mall-related dining, rest assured, there are a few gems hiding in among the malls and box stores. Nestled a few blocks away from Tysons Corner Center in the first floor of an office building is the surprisingly pleasant Nostos, an upscale Greek restaurant. Since I had a free evening, this was also a good opportunity to get together with some of my DC area friends from TCF, so a group of 8 of us descended up Nostos.
A second day hanging around Tysons Corner Center in Northern Virginia sent me out in search of a good breakfast. After a walking loop of the area, I settled upon a spot I had spied the previous evening; across from Earl’s Kitchen + Bar is Barrel & Bushel, the in-hotel restaurant of the Hyatt Regency Tysons Corner. Instead of being the bustling, over-crowded joint that it appears to be from the start of happy hour through closing, at breakfast time it’s actually a fairly pleasant restaurant that is primarily catering to hotel guests. But as a walk-in, I was promptly greeted and settled into a nice window-side table with a nice giant pot of French press coffee.
The interesting thing about business travel is that sometimes it takes me to some truly neat places. Sometimes it takes me to, well, offbeat locations that have their charms. And sometimes it takes you to… malls. That was the case with a Navy client, who periodically requires me to come to a briefing in… Tysons Corner, Virginia. Which is basically several upscale shopping malls all in close proximity. Which instead of my usual, quirky destinations, often means several days of… chain food. But that said, sometimes I do encounter a chain I like. You can read my old reviews of Shake Shack from back in the days when Shake Shack only had a few locations, and for the most part I think their product actually holds up. And there are other chains I still particularly enjoy, like Wagamama. So a trip to the mall isn’t always bad. And in this case, I found a smaller chain that I actually rather enjoyed: Earls Kitchen.
As a frequent volunteer for FIRST Robotics, I often find myself having to spend the occasional weekend as a guest judge staying in towns that I’m normally close enough to that I’d just visit them during the day, but due to the early hour that Robotics kicks off, it’s nice staying close by. This also gives me an opportunity to check out some of the local towns in a bit more culinary detail. This year, I was spending a lot of time in Windham, so I ended up getting a room in Nashua. I’ve enjoyed a few places around Nashua before, like Martha’s Exchange or Vietnam Noodle House, but this time, I was craving a gyro. Many other places I’ve lived, gyro joints were a dime a dozen, but in New Hampshire for some reason, they are somewhat rare (although Manchester has a few, like the very good Gyro Spot). But I had noticed that since my last visit, Nashua had added Main St Gyro, so I had to give it a try.
Over the years, Carol and I have had some pretty good luck with raffles, so when we were attending last year’s SipTemberfest at Mad River Glen, we couldn’t resist buying tickets to the Mad River Path Association’s raffle. And indeed, a bit later when they started drawing tickets, we soon found ourselves winning a free night at the Pitcher Inn in Warren, VT. The Pitcher Inn is basically the ne plus ultra of Vermont country inns, so, a few months later, we found ourselves taking a nice mid-week vacation (the free night wasn’t good on weekends) and having a very pleasant stay at the Pitcher in their “Mallard Room”. But that also gave us an opportunity to check out their rather nice restaurant, 275 Main.
I have a soft spot for Montpelier, one of the United States’ most quiet state capitals. It’s a pleasant town, with a lot of little stores, and a decent arts scene. And, most importantly, for a modest city of its size, it actually has an impressive assortment of restaurants, ranging from classic diner (Coffee Corner, to funky Asian-inspired (Kismet), to pizza (Positive Pie II), just for starts. And in this environment, new eateries are appearing all the time, and most of them have staying power. So, when a new place shows up in Montpelier, I’m usually interested in checking it out, so a trip up to Warren VT turned involved a chance to stop by and check out a relative newcomer: Downhome.